A Driving Instructor's Blog

I’ve been watching a big argument on a web forum on the subject of when to use your indicators, and when not to. There are some very confused people out there!Night lights

The general rule is that you should signal whenever it would help another road user, including pedestrians, to understand your intentions. Unfortunately, too many instructors seem to be hung up on trying to find reasons not to indicate just to show how clever they are, and they lose sight of everything else.

Using a simple example, when you are moving off from the side of the road or pulling over you should check your mirrors/blind spots and decide if a signal is needed. Although a PDI who was doing their Part 2 test would probably pick up a fault if they signalled when no one was there, learners on their driving tests almost certainly wouldn’t as long as they had checked their mirrors first. At the other extreme, not signalling to move off/pull over when someone is behind you is almost a guaranteed serious or dangerous fault.

Unfortunately, many ADIs appear incapable of dealing with things which aren’t cast in stone, and strive for all-encompassing “rules” to teach to their pupils. As a result, some will advise their learners to always signal whenever they move off or pull up. This is wrong, even though the examiners will nearly always let it go if the correct observations have been made and any other traffic allowed for. Personally, I always teach my own pupils to signal only if there is a need – it gets them checking their mirrors – although some will fall back towards signalling when it isn’t really needed as their lessons progress. I don’t really have a problem with that… as I say, as long as they have checked their mirrors first.

When it comes to turning left or right at junctions, though, the confusion really takes hold. Neither The Essential Skills or Roadcraft state explicitly that you must signal for every junction, but neither state explicitly that you might not need to, either. So what many ADIs do is attempt to apply the guidance given for moving off/pulling over to turning at junctions solely on the basis that the indicators are involved. As a result they usually end up teaching incorrect or inappropriate things. Let’s consider some examples to try and understand what should be taught.Car indicator cluster

To start with, learners should be taught to use the MSM routine (and not the IPSGA routine mentioned in Roadcraft). This is where the “experts” who begin to dissect DT1 get the whole thing badly wrong.

MSM is specifically mentioned in the Highway Code several times, and it stands for “mirrors-signal-manoeuvre”  (acronym collectors will also use MSPSL (mirrors-signal-position-speed-look), MSPSGL (mirrors-signal-position-speed-gear-look), MSPSLADA (mirrors-signal-position-speed-look-assess-decide-act), or any number of similar variants). The basic application of this is that on approaching a junction the driver should check their mirrors (M) and signal (S) in good time (though not too early), adjust their position (P) and speed (S) – which usually involves dropping into a lower gear (G) – look (L) at the junction as they get closer, assess the situation (A), make a decision about how to proceed (D), then act confidently (A) and complete the manoeuvre.

The vital detail here is that the signal stage is initiated long before the point at which the driver could be certain that there was no one around to benefit from it. By definition, and except in the most theoretical of situations which are unlikely to prevail in the real world, you would only know that the signal was unnecessary way after the point at which you should have signalled for you to be anywhere near applying MSM properly. Any learner who delayed applying their signal for that long – and particularly if it then turned out that one was needed after all – would definitely be chasing down a test fail.

Now, if you had such an imaginary junction which was in the middle of a vast, flat expanse of closely-cropped grassland where you could see for many hundreds of metres in all directions as you approached it, and you could therefore be completely and utterly certain that you were the only road user around, then there would be absolutely no point in giving a signal to turn left or right. The problem is that 99.9% of junctions are not like that at all (especially when they’re on test routes), so there is little point droning on and on about the remaining 0.1% (which are probably located in the Outer Hebrides anyway, even if they exist outside the American prairies or African savannah). In the real world you will have reduced visibility due to parked cars, buildings, hedges and trees, your own limitations, and so on, so there is always a significant possibility that someone is around the corner who you haven’t seen yet, and who needs to know what you are doing. This detail alone dictates that you should signal when turning left or right.Indicator dashboard light

Then there is the question of how close another driver has to be before they enter the very vague “zone”, where you and your actions are likely to interfere with theirs. Let me give an example of that.

Imagine that I am at Point A on a major road and I see someone emerging several hundred metres in front of me as I’m driving along. On the one hand, the fact that they have pulled out is of no consequence, because I am so far back that I haven’t got to slow down for them. However, on the other hand, their signals are of significant value to me (though many drivers on our roads may not even see the other car emerging that far off, let alone have any interest in what signals it is giving) since they will enable me to plan my next actions and react accordingly. Now flip the scenario around, so that it is me who is emerging, and another driver is approaching from that same Point A several hundred metres away. From my point of view, if I try to be clever I might easily decide that that other car is too far away to benefit from a signal (which he probably is), or I could think many moves ahead and realise that he might want to know what I am doing. In other words, the “zone” is a huge grey area which varies depending on the skills of the driver(s) and where the the drivers are observing things from. The whole situation is far too complicated to expect learners to be able to take in all the nuances and make a decision about whether to signal or not quickly enough to prevent more obvious confusion right next to them.

The information in DT1, The Essential Skills, and quite possibly Roadcraft, does not specifically refer to turning at junctions. It refers very specifically to general signalling when changing your road position, etc. That is because MSM covers junctions, as I have described above. Yes, you use MSM when changing direction, as well, but you do not have the same issues with knowing if it is clear that you do with junctions.

I’ve lost count of the times one of my pupils has approached a junction or roundabout, seen that it is apparently clear while they’re a few car lengths short of the line, gone for the emerge – only for me to have to use the dual controls because someone else has suddenly turned up. They have made their decision too early, and it happens far too often to be able to justify teaching them to behave like smart arses just because an ADI has misunderstood Roadcraft or something. Quite simply, when pupils don’t signal it is far more likely that they have forgotten, not looked properly, or are just being lazy. The possibility that between the last time I saw them a week ago and today they have somehow acquired X-ray vision, the gift of prescience, and 30 years of driving experience along with RoSPA and IAM certificates (and the ego which goes with them) is quite a long way down the list. The thing about learners is just that: they’re learners.

While we’re on the subject, I’ve also lost count of the times a pupil of mine has emerged somewhere without checking properly (and I have, and seen that it is safe, which is why I’ve let them do it), and when I’ve pulled them over to discuss it they’ve said:

But there was no one else there!

This immediately earns the lecture about how they couldn’t possibly know that if they hadn’t looked properly, and especially if they couldn’t actually see – which in most cases they couldn’t at the point where they made their decision to go. The lecture works even better if they do it and there is someone coming, because then I can give my supplementary “I told you so” lecture, as well. It often helps to drive them slowly through the junction again with me doing the controls so that they can see how far away they were from being able to see clearly, and how close to the give way line they really needed to be before making a decision.

The whole debate about not signalling at junctions for learners is stupid, pointless, and dangerous. Leave it to the anoraks at IAM and RoSPA – and even they cannot agree on it when it comes to awarding their certificates.

What is MSM?

It stands for “mirrors-signal-manoeuvre”, and it is the procedure you should use whenever you are driving and want to change course or direction. You don’t just use it for turning corners.

Some people refer to it by other acronyms – MSPSL, MSPSLADA, MSPSGL, and so on (as I explained above). But it is the same procedure they are talking about. Note that MSM is not the same as IPSGA, which is the system mentioned in Roadcraft. Roadcraft is the police drivers handbook and it is absolutely not intended to be the primary source of training material for normal drivers. Unfortunately, many ADIs have ideas well above their station and are incapable of understanding this, and try to teach too many Roadcraft-only principles to people who can’t even steer yet.

MSM is only a guiding principle. You often need to supplement the first M with blind spot and/or shoulder checks, and in the case of the S a signal may or may not be required depending on the circumstances.

Should I always signal when I am moving off?

Technically, no. You should check all around and only signal if there is someone there to benefit from it. People who might benefit include pedestrians and cyclists as well as other drivers. However, as long as you have checked you are unlikely to be penalised on your test for signalling to move away if there is no one there. Personally, I teach my own pupils the correct way from the outset, but as long as they have checked that it’s safe, and as long as they signal just before they move off (and not before they’re ready to go), I don’t worry about it too much.

Should I always signal when I am pulling up?

Same as I explained above. Technically, no. But be careful if you decide to do it anyway, because there is now the risk of signalling too early and so being marked for a poorly timed signal (i.e. if there is a junction on your left) which isn’t an issue when you’re moving off.

How do I tell if someone will benefit or not?

This is why the whole issue is not as black or white as some would like it to be. For example, if there is a car parked in front of you as you move to pull up alongside the kerb, and there is someone in it, your signal would benefit them by informing them of your intentions. But can you be certain there is someone actually in the car? Sometimes you can see them, but other times – and particularly when there is poor lighting – you can’t be sure. So if in any doubt, just use a signal.

Should I signal if I’m in a lane which only goes one way?

Technically, there is no need to signal if the lane you’re in has a left- or right-only arrow painted on it. However, sometimes people use these lanes incorrectly and giving a signal might make sense (remember that when a signal is “of benefit to other road users”, it doesn’t just mean the good ones). As long as you don’t mislead or confuse anyone, you shouldn’t be penalised for indicating in these situations.

When should I give the signal?

It needs to be properly timed and not misleading. If you’re going to give a signal for moving off, do it just after you release the handbrake (just before is OK, but I prefer just after). Don’t start signalling before you’ve even got the car into gear – it drives me mad when my pupils do that. Leaving the indicator on for too long is confusing to other road users. Signalling should be the last thing you do before you move away after you’ve made sure it is safe to go.

When pulling up, don’t signal too soon such that people might think you are turning left, or that you are going to stop sooner than you are.

Will I fail if I always signal to move off or pull up?

No, not if you have checked to see if it is safe first. However, signalling unnecessarily when moving off or stopping is technically wrong, so try to do it properly instead of just trying to play safe.

Should I always signal when I am turning left or right at a junction?

You should be using the MSM routine, and this means that you should be signalling to turn left or right long before you find out if anyone was in the road you are turning into. So the answer is pretty much yes – unless you have one of those magical open junctions that everyone seems to think of when they start getting confused about signals, or if you want to play Russian Roulette with the examiner on your test.

But what if I can see that there is no one around to benefit?

Look, it’s up to you. If you are 100% certain – and I mean really 100% – that there is no possibility of someone turning up even when you’re back at the point where you should have begun your MSM routine, then there really is no need to signal. But what have you got to lose by signalling anyway? Except in the Magical World of perfectly flat and featureless landscapes you are unlikely to be able to guarantee no one will turn up, and it won’t be marked if you do signal (even if it was it would only attract a driver (minor) fault). On the other hand, if you choose not to and the examiner disagrees that a signal was unnecessary you’re chasing down a serious fault. Don’t be a smart arse, and especially not on your driving test!

What if the test in question is my ADI Part 2 test?

Signalling unnecessarily can be marked as a fault on the Part 2 test. You certainly want to be doing it properly when moving off and pulling over.

As far as turning left or right at junctions is concerned on your Part 2, if you have one of these magical open junctions on your test routes you need to get advice from your trainer and/or the examiner(s) who take ADI tests in your area to find out what is expected. The examiners would be more than happy to advise you.

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